Growing up in Gloucester England in the 1980s, Simon Pegg idolized American action heroes. Obsessed with Star Wars, he was the kind of kid who put a picture of Carrie Fisher/Princess Leia on his bedroom wall. In short, a nerd, who would channel his boyhood passions into a career in comedy and professional nerdom.
Pegg is best known for what has become a cult classic zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead. He also co-wrote Hot Fuzz, the buddy cop film set in an England village where a missing swan is a call to action. He joins NPR's Renee Montagne to talk about his new memoir, Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy's Journey to Becoming a Big Kid.
Before he grew up into a "big kid," Pegg remembers he played Star Wars with his friends. Pegg identified with the "whiny" Luke Skywalker — even though he says Han Solo was obviously cooler. "Maybe my identification with [Skywalker] was that I was kind of a farm boy, miles from anything interesting and maybe [I] related to his desire to get involved with the fight against the evil empire."
Nerdy from a young age — and funny, too. Pegg still recalls the first joke he ever told — at age 6 — to an audience of his mother and grandmother. "I remember the intellectual process," Pegg says. He knew what he was about to say might be funny, but he pretended to play it cute, instead. "We were talking about my friend and I said, 'Oh his dad's a dentist.' And she said, 'Where does he practice?' And I said, 'No he's a real one.'" A simple joke, Pegg acknowledges, but he was young, and it hinted at what was to come. "I seemed predetermined to seeing things that way," he says.
His love for zombie movies came early, too — Pegg says he was influenced by George Romero, director of the cult classics Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. "A sort of right-wing group banned a whole bunch of what they called 'video nasties,'" Pegg recalls. "The hunt for a copy of Dawn of the Dead was like the Holy Grail for teenagers in the '80s where I lived. Before I saw it, I knew all about it: I knew there was a guy who got the top of his head chopped off by a helicopter, I knew there was a moment when someone got their guts ripped out, and it was like: I gotta see this, this sounds great!"
Pegg had seen stills from Dawn of the Dead in his Encyclopedia of Horror — which made it all the more enticing. He couldn't wait to see the American mall "awash" with blood. "There was also something frightening about it as well," Pegg admits. "There was an idea that you could watch these films and be mentally scarred by them. You'd hear rumors about these kids that found a pirate video of Dawn of the Dead and they'd all gone mad and killed each other. These apocryphal stories ... would go around school."
One day, when Pegg was 12 years old, a friend came by with a coveted copy of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. "I was so frightened to watch it that I actually said no," Pegg says. "Looking back, I'm glad, because that film is so scary and brilliant but ... I wouldn't have slept for a week."
Fast forward two decades, and Pegg was well into his career writing his own zombie films. In Shaun of the Dead, which Pegg co-wrote, Ed is a young slob (that's one below a slacker, Pegg explains) who must grapple with family and relationship problems ... and the zombie apocalypse. "Even in the face of a zombie apocalypse your life only changes in so much," Pegg explains. "You find yourself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, nothing else changes: you're still scared of spiders, you still like the same music, you still have the same little quarrels with people."
(At one point in the film, the characters realize that vinyl is an effective weapon against the zombies, so they start to throw records — but they have to choose carefully because Shaun doesn't want to lose his original pressing of Blue Monday or The Stone Roses' second album.)
As for the raging genre war over whether zombies should be slow or fast, Pegg falls solidly on the side of slow-moving zombies. "It is sort of a schism in the church of the undead," Pegg explains. "I personally don't like fast zombies because, A) it's fun to get annoyed about something so trivial and B) I think it removes their appeal."
In popular film history, zombies have become known as pathetic, tragic figures; Audiences can feel sorry for them, Pegg says. "They don't have any agenda. They just do what they do, which is eat flesh. And when they start running around screaming like Velociraptors, you just don't care about them anymore, you just think: go away, you noisy speed demon."